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Rhapsody Remorse

On December 26, 1995, Mark Sears spent the day tracking an elusive J Pod. With his own children in tow, Mark and the Sears Pod circumnavigated Vashon-Maury. Near Blake Island, the Sears Pod finally caught up with J Pod. Tucked in delicately with Tahoma’s gorgeous family, the J10 matriline, was an adorable “spanker” – a term of endearment for a newborn. The baby orca snuggled up to her lovely mother, Ewok (J20). That baby was Rhapsody (J32), and she was radiant.

A delightful family welcomed Rhapsody. Her mother Ewok (J20) was born in 1981. J32’s grandma Tahoma (J10) was born around 1962. Uncle Everett (J18) was born in 1977, and Auntie Oreo (J22), an indispensable nanny, was born in 1985. Oreo (J22) had her first baby, son DoubleStuf (J34), in 1998.

Rhapsody’s idyllic family life started to shatter in 1998. Tragically, her mother Ewok (J20) died that year at the tender age of 17. Grandma Tahoma (J10) cared for Rhapsody (J32) briefly, but then Tahoma died in 1999 when she was just 37. Thankfully, Auntie Oreo (J22) “adopted” wee Rhapsody, nurturing her in tandem with her newborn son J34.
Another harrowing blow to the J10 matriline occurred in March 2000, when the battered, emaciated body of Rhapsody’s uncle Everett (J18) washed ashore in Boundary Bay, BC. Poor Everett died a few months after he lost his mother Tahoma (J10) -- sadly accentuating the vital importance of mothers to their adult sons in Resident orca society.
Everett (J18) died of a severe bacterial infection (Edwardsiella tarda). His diseased body was loaded with the sins of industrialization: immune-suppressing, hormone-disrupting contaminants, which likely made him sterile and underdeveloped for a 23-year-old male orca.

We were distraught over the horrific loss of Everett (J18). On December 4, the sight of his niece’s lifeless form at Courtenay, BC uncovered old grief and provoked new despair. Rhapsody (J32) was pregnant with a female fetus when she died. Their deaths probably doomed the J10 matriline.

Rhapsody’s aunt Oreo (J22) is presumably post-reproductive. She has two sons, DoubleStuf (J34), age 16, and Cookie (J38), age 11. Oreo has had no surviving offspring since 2003. Boys do not carry a matriline forward, so the affectionately named “Cookies” are the terminus for this once vibrant J Pod dynasty.

This summer, tacky, publicity-seeking gossip circulated about whether or not Rhapsody (J32) was pregnant. I felt something was wrong with her -- call it naturalist’s intuition. J32’s belly looked abnormally distended to me. As this week’s photo shows, Rhapsody often breached. Was she breaching out of discomfort? Humans perceive breaching as a joyful behavior, but whales in distress also breach.

A preliminary necropsy revealed J32’s traumatic pregnancy: she carried an almost full-term fetus, dead and decaying for a while, that she was unable to discharge. She had an enlarged spleen and an enlarged lymph node near her uterus. Hauntingly similar to her uncle Everett, Rhapsody’s blubber layer was thin, indicating that she was malnourished. I said Baby L120’s death was soul crushing; soul crushing squared seems insufficient to describe the deaths of Rhapsody and her unborn calf.

Another of our cherished Kéet families has withered away in the course of a generation. Only 77 endangered Southern Residents remain. Awkward conversations will ensue with children and grandchildren when they ask what happened to the pretty orcas in the photos posted obsessively on social media. How many more of Rhapsody’s relatives must die before we adopt a truly precautionary approach to orca recovery?

Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 206-463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated three decades ago by Mark Sears. Send photos to Orca Annie at and check for updates at